Tuesday, June 29, 2004

A Usage Apologist? Me?

As I argued on my site and the ACES site last year that "10 items or less" is not an error, it crossed my mind that I might be rationalizing a usage error. I don't think I'm guilty of that, but I find the topic of such rationalization interesting. I can think of three biggies in this category:

  • The idea that "I could care less" is not necessarily an erroneous formation of "I couldn't care less," but rather a bit of sly sarcasm ("I could care less, but I don't").

  • The idea that "try and" is not an unsuccessful attempt to say "try to," but rather a stronger version of it ("Don't just try to do it. Do it!").

  • The idea that "let me alone" is the correct way of saying "leave me alone" when the meaning is "stop bothering me" rather than literally "leave me alone." (I realize that this idea has more backing among the recognized authorities than the other two.)

    Thoughts? Other examples?

    Nicole said...

    So, after thinking that you might be rationalizing a usage error, what convinced you otherwise?

    Bill said...

    It was just a flash of self-doubt. I stand by my argument that "10 items or less" isn't the same thing as the clearly wrong "10 or less items."

    Doug said...

    As a matter of fact, "Working with Words" clearly makes the distinction between leave and let alone. What's interesting to me is that these kinds of discussions are likely to be more frequent now that communications quickly spreads new and cribbed uses.

    Frank said...

    "A million and a half dollars" used in place of "one and a half million dollars" always bugs me. One is $1,000,000.50 (a million dollars and fifty cents), the other is $1,500,000.00 (one and a half million). The difference is $499,999.50.

    I know what the writer is trying to say when they say it the sloppy way, and I can take "a day and a half" or "a week and a half", but with money I expect more precision.

    Frank said...

    "I know what the writer is trying to say when they say it the sloppy way"

    Yep, that's pretty sloppy too. I generally try to use the plural to avoid the his/her dilemma. I should have written: "I know what writers are trying to say when they . . . "

    Bill said...

    That one would have been easy to write around, but I'm rooting for "they" to emerge as the accepted solution to the his/her problem.

    Bill said...

    Who's the idiot who wrote that "comfort" line anyway?

    Bill said...

    Here is the elaboration I posted way back when on Barbara Wallraff's Free the Peeves site (Barbara agrees with you, Nessie):

    My simple explanation: "10 items or less" cannot be called wrong, because "less" has meaning all by itself. As you walk out of a shopping mall, you might say to yourself, "I bought less than I thought I would." Less what? Does it matter? It's "less merchandise," or something to that effect, if you insist on annotating, but there's no need to annotate. The meaning is clear.

    The long version:

    If you say "10 or less items," you are explicitly saying "less items." With "10 items or less," you do not necessarily make a syntactical commitment to that meaning. "More" and "less" *can* mean "more _____s" and "less [read fewer] _____s," but they can also mean more, period, and less, period. The proximity of a "_____s" in the form of "items" does not necessarily mean the "less" is attaching itself to that plural word. "Less," as in the mall example above, could mean "less merchandise."

    The part that I think is open to debate, the part where I may or may not be in apologist territory, is whether the, uh, framers -- the people who conceive such signs -- intended the meaning I'm attributing to them. Given that sign makers aren't usually the hypercorrect type, I maintain that the framers do indeed mean "less" rather than "fewer."

    Picture this:

    You're a tyrant or a rock star, and you have instructed your minions to bring you platters of M&Ms-brand candies, hold the green ones. The first platter comes, and the minion announces, "Your 10,000 M&Ms, your excellency!" You're pleased, but you think it's a bit much.

    "Next time," you say, "bring less."

    Are you misspeaking? Of course not. You mean less in the sense of less bounty, less abundance, less excess, less than that, even though you're dealing with a countable quantity (10,000 M&Ms). It would be goofily hypercorrect to say "Bring fewer," and I think it would be goofily hypercorrect to post a sign reading "10 items or fewer."

    Urban Forager said...

    Part of the reason we understand "less than 10,000 M&Ms" to mean something is that all M&Ms are approximately the same size (allowing, that is, that they are all plain or all peanut). Less of them is a reduced volume of M&Ms. And if you bought less than you thought you would, you're probably thinking in terms of the dollar value of what you bought.

    But the "framers" of the express-lane signs clearly intend to limit the number of items the clerk must scan. Customers are being asked to count, not to estimate some vague quantity of merchandise that is less than 10 items. As long as an item is of indeterminate size, "10 items or less" means nothing -- except "10 items or fewer."

    Bill said...

    Again, "10 or fewer items" is fine and correct. It would be a dandy way to indicate that the framers were thinking of counting items, which indeed they were. But "10 items or fewer" is a pedantic and stilted bit of syntax that no normal person would ever speak or write.

    Or maybe I'm overreacting.

    Urban Forager said...

    You have a pretty restrictive definition of normality. Everybody but usage apologists is excluded!

    Here's a scenario that challenges your reading: I'm standing in line for the 10-items-or-less lane with a 25-pound bag of long-grain white rice in my cart. The jerk behind me is standing in the same line with one pound of long-grain white rice, one pound of brown rice, one pound of Minnesota wild rice, one pound of Lundberg Wehani, one pound of Thai jasmine rice, one pound of basmati, one pound of Carolina gold, one pound of Louisiana pecan rice, one pound of Chinese black rice, one pound of sushi rice, one pound of arborio rice, one pound of Kalijira, one pound of Spanish Bomba, one pound of Vietnamese red rice and one pound of Uncle Ben's.

    Reading the sign as grammatically correct (that is, taking "less" to be independent of "items") the jerk behind me could reasonably argue that he should be allowed into the express lane because his cart contains less rice than mine does. My 25-pound bag of rice equals one item. Because he has less rice, he therefore has less than one item, which is certainly less than 10 items.

    Thus, the "less" does indeed attach itself to the "items" rather than standing alone. The grammatically correct reading is possible, but it is not the one the grocery-store management intended -- that reading allows too much room for interpretation. Because the sign promulgates a rule, the specificity of "fewer" is better. My grocery store uses it!

    I just discovered your blog, BTW -- I used to read your Web page several years ago when I was a copy editor, and I have two copies of Lapsing Into a Comma. You're still my hero, and I plan to check out Elephants right away.

    Unknown said...

    Actually, regarding the dollars discussion, both readings can be potentially ambiguous.

    a million and a half dollars
    (a million [dollars]) and (a half dollars)


    a million and a half dollars
    (a million and a half) dollars


    one and a half million dollars
    (one [million dollars]) and (a half million dollars)


    one and a half million dollars
    (one [dollars]) and (a half million dollars)

    Really I don't think either form is sloppy. It just depends on where you put the parenthesis and which words you choose to assume.

    And clearly neither are actually ambiguous in speech, since people don't generally talk about $500,001 or $1,000,000.50; but they do frequently talk about $1,500,000.

    Unknown said...

    Also, for an interesting discussion by linguists on the scalar negation issue ("I couldn't care less") see a Language Log post called "Why are negations so easy to fail to miss?" at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/000500.html. From that article there is also a link to a whole separate article specifically about the Could care less/Couldn't care less issue.